Sudan expels 6 aid agencies in wake of Bashir warrant


Sudan revoked the licences of Oxfam and at least five other aid groups today after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, aid officials said.

The move, which effectively freezes the agencies' work, was the first concrete sign of repercussions against international groups after the global court indicted Bashir.

Sudanese government officials have in the past threatened to take action against Darfur-based aid groups they say are passing evidence on to the global court's prosecutor, accusations the agencies deny.

Britain's Oxfam said Sudanese authorities had revoked its licence to operate in north Sudan, although it had not been given a reason for the order and it was not clear whether staff would be expelled.

"This is going to have a devastating effect on hundreds of thousand of people," said Oxfam spokesman Alun McDonald.

"We work with 600,000 people in north Sudan, 400,000 of them in Darfur. It is of the utmost importance the government agrees to let us continue that work."

Other aid groups, who asked not to be named, said they had also been told to shut down their operations.

UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe said between six and 10 aid agencies have had their registrations revoked and some of their assets seized.

"(U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon) notes that this is a serious setback to life-saving operations in Darfur and urges the government of Sudan to act urgently to restore those NGOs to their full operational status," Okabe said.

The decision against Bashir, the most senior figure pursued by the Hague-based court since it was set up in 2002, could spark more turmoil in Sudan and the surrounding region.

The court said it did not find sufficient grounds to include the count of genocide in Bashir's arrest warrant, but indicted Bashir on seven counts for war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, forcible displacement and other crimes.

Sudan dismissed the ICC decision, with a presidential adviser telling state television that it was part of a "neo-colonialism" plan. Bashir plans to attend an Arab summit set for this month in Qatar despite the arrest warrant.

"We have received the invitation [to the summit] and accepted it," Mutrif Siddiq, under-secretary of foreign affairs, told reporters.

"He (Bashir) will attend all Arab summits and all African summits," he said.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in central Khartoum to protest against the arrest warrant.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said if Bashir believed he had been wrongly charged for war crimes in Darfur he could "have his day in court".

Speaking to reporters en route to Brussels, Ms Clinton said she hoped the indictment issued earlier by the ICC in the Hague would not lead to "increased violence" on the part of Sudan's government.

"President Bashir would have a chance to have his day in court if he believes that the indictment is wrongly charged. He can certainly contest it," she said.

"I certainly hope that it does not lead to any additional actions of violence or punishment on the part of the Bashir government," she added.

Tension also mounted in Darfur, where UN officials said hundreds of Sudanese government troops paraded through the regional capital El Fasher in a show of strength.

"It looked like a reminder to the population that they are in control ... The message was 'We are here. Mind your behaviour,'" said one official who asked not to be named.

The official said soldiers drove through the settlement in armoured personnel carriers and "technical" pick-ups with machine guns mounted on the back. Jet fighters also flew low over the town during the morning, the official added.

The court's move could hurt prospects for peace in Sudan and pit Western powers against backers of the Khartoum government.

Bashir has dismissed the allegations made by the ICC, the world's first permanent court for prosecuting war crimes, as part of a Western conspiracy.

"They can eat it (the warrant)," he told a crowd of cheering supporters in northern Sudan yesterday.

China, the African Union and the Arab League suggest an indictment could destabilise the region, worsen the Darfur conflict and threaten a troubled peace deal between north Sudan and the semi-autonomous south, potentially rich in oil.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo accuses Bashir of orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Sudan's western region of Darfur, starting in 2003.

UN officials say as many as 300,000 people have been killed in the Darfur conflict since 2003, while Khartoum says 10,000 have died.

A further 2.7 million people are estimated to have been uprooted by the conflict, which began when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government.

Violence has spiked in Darfur in the months leading up to the ICC decision.

Sudanese government officials have said they expect Darfur rebels to step up attacks after the court's announcement.